There are moments in Mark Rylance's long-awaited Richard III which, like his performance in Jerusalem, conjure up the ghost of Laurence Olivier playing Archie Rice in The Entertainer. He's a turn, a card, a cheeky chappie; and it's not only the presence in the cast of Roger Lloyd Pack as his sidekick Buckingham which makes me think that this king is the Del Boy of the middle ages.
Yes, he's outrageously, hilariously funny in a way which may offend Shakespearean purists but will surprise nobody who saw him playing Cleopatra on the same stage. Rylance, returning to the Globe for the first time in six years, always holds the audience in the palm of his hand. His timing is incomparable; and there's nobody like him for exerting control over both stage and audience without over-acting. The last time I saw Richard III at the Globe, the role was played by Kathryn Hunter, another highly individual performer with similar gifts; I've also seen Ian McKellen play him as a Fascist dictator, Jonathan Slinger play him as a psychopath for the RSC and Kevin Spacey turn him into a twisted evil villain at the Old Vic. All these were fine performances, and all completely different from each other. Rylance, cozening the audience into his confidence like a street trader, manages to be completely different again. Like Roger Allam as Falstaff, he turns Richard into a crowd-pleasing show-off who by the end of the play is in a state of disintegration, unable to joke his way out of trouble. The best scene in Tim Carroll's production in the one when Richard mounts the throne not on his own but accompanied by his queen; Anne perches like a stuffed dummy on the arm of his throne, frozen in horror as Richard's true ambitions are revealed.
And yet, and yet... I feel there's still something missing in Rylance's performance. Like his previous incarnation Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, and like Allam's Falstaff, he dominates the proceedings, but never chills the spine. This man, unlike Byron and Falstaff, is a serial killer, and there's a moment when the chuckling has to stop. Rylance gets the audience on his side early, and never seems to lose their support, but it might be better if he did. A few years ago I saw Alan Cumming play Dionysus in The Bacchae; first he charmed the audience by flirting with them, then slowly revealed himself as a psychopath. It was all deeply uncomfortable, and I was hoping Rylance would perform the same trick, making the audience feel complicit in his crimes. His Richard certainly develops and evolves, but apart from an arrogant flick of his royal cloak at the groundlings on his way to mount the throne, he remains a bit too amusing to frighten us.
This production is a 'traditional practices' one, with authentic Jacobethan costumes and men playing the women's roles. This brings with it a style of playing that turns its back on naturalism and tends towards a stylised, operatic theatricality rather than a realistic human drama. Despite the sterling efforts of Samuel Barnett, James Garnon and Johnny Flynn, the combination of rigid female costume and pancake make-up make it hard for the actors to use their bodies or their faces to bring their roles alive. Barnett as Queen Elizabeth, denouncing Richard for murdering her sons, manages however to break through the limitations. There are good backup performances from Globe veterans Paul Chahidi, Liam Brennan and Peter Hamilton Dyer, and terrific cameo efforts by the pink-suited princelings on their way to be murdered in the Tower.
This production has its press night tonight, and I expect it will get even better by the time it has run a few weeks at the Globe and then moves to the West End.